Karen Osborne

A while ago, I heard the peppy 1980s song “Karma Chameleon” on the radio. I wish I could say that song brings up nice memories, but it doesn’t. When I hear Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon,” I feel a tight, angry knot forming in my chest. I feel absolutely terrible.

The song was playing on my computer when I discovered the awful things my so-called best friend had been writing about me on an Internet message board. It was read by everyone at school.

I remember confronting her that day at lunch in the cafeteria, where she was eating with the rest of our group. I thought that, just maybe, they’d see what a terrible person she was being and side with me.

She was the most popular person in our group, so they sided with her, scared to lose her friendship. In a flash, I became the most unpopular girl at school.

All of this happened somewhere around 15 years ago. You can probably imagine how silly it is to still feel bad about it now that I’m in my 30s. After all, I’d forgiven these girls a long time ago, hadn’t I? I’d gotten over it when I realized they weren’t actually my friends, didn’t I? Why was one little song hijacking my brain with all of these horrible feelings?

There was something my friend had forgotten when she fired up her computer to complain about me. She forgot that words can often last longer than a broken bone or a black eye.

Bullies in old television shows were often portrayed as big bruisers that give the little guys wedgies while rifling in their pockets for lunch money. Those idiots are still around, but they’ve become more insidious. Today’s bullies also use their words and their thoughts to cause significant damage in person and online.

The line between bully and nonbully is far more permeable, as well. It can be really tempting to be mean to people we don’t like, to whisper behind someone’s back or dash off a nasty comment on someone’s Instagram.

Maybe they’re less popular. Maybe they have a weird profile picture or wear thrift-shop clothes. Maybe everyone else is laughing at them already, and we think that we’ll fit in a little better if we laugh, too. Maybe we’re scared of having it happen to us.

Words have power. Words are important. They enter through the ears and shoot straight to the heart and stay there, burned into the brain better than anything carved in stone. Someday, even after they’ve forgiven us, even after we’ve forgotten all of the things that happened way back when, these words are still going to make us feel small and angry.

Recently, one of the girls at the cafeteria table that day friended me on Facebook. She wanted to apologize for being so mean to me back in school and to ask for my forgiveness. I told her that I’d forgiven her a long time ago.

She told me she wished she hadn’t been so mean, and she told me that she would have done it differently if she could live it over, but she can’t. She probably feels worse about the incident than I do.

If there’s a lesson in this, it is to use words to spread kindness and uplift others, not to bring them down.